Inspired by her adopted Chinese siblings, VCU student earns Critical Language Scholarship to study in China

By Patrick Kane
University Public Affairs

Abigail Byram, a computer science student at Virginia Commonwealth University, has four great reasons to study Chinese.

“I did independent study because my family has adopted four children from China. They were adopted as older children, and I needed to speak Chinese to be able to help integrate them into the family,” Byram said. “That’s what sparked my interest in Chinese, and it’s continued from there into more of an academic interest.”

This summer, she will take a major step by studying in China with support from a Critical Language Scholarship. Byram is presently taking a 200-level Chinese course at VCU. She plans to add a minor in Asian and Chinese Studies.

Byram will spend eight weeks in Dalian, China, studying Mandarin with a heavy dose of local culture. The program condenses a year of academic study.

“I’m making a commitment to the program but also to myself that I want to be, throughout all the classes and every interaction through the day, only speaking in Chinese so I can improve my skills as much as possible,” she said. “That’s something that is a bit intimidating and also exciting, because it’s not an opportunity that I could have here.”

Byram, a sophomore in the School of Engineering, is also a member of the Honors College and VCU Globe program.

As the siblings came into the family, Byram’s interest and language skills grew, said her mother, Valorie Byram. The adoption process involves a two-week stay in China. The family frequently made video calls.

“We would Skype with Abby, and Abby would sing them little Chinese songs, things that all kids know and sing,” Valorie Byram said. “All of them remember talking to Abby, and her singing to them while they were still in China.”

When the family returned home, “She was just a good big sister. They have never been in a home environment, let alone an American environment,” Valorie Byram said.

“I spoke Chinese only individually for a while to be able to communicate with them. Now they speak perfect English,” Abigail Byram said.

As a thank you for compelling her to apply to the program, Byram is planning a treat.

“I will be bringing back a whole lot of Chinese candy and snacks to thank them,” she said.

The Dalian program centers on intensive language study each weekday, with the added perspective of living with a homestay family.

“It gives you more opportunities to practice, and learn more about daily culture and life in China. They have activities over the weekend that you go on excursions to learn more about the culture in the area,” Abigail Byram said. “Dalian is on the seaside and it’s very famous for seafood. I’m a sucker for Chinese food, and I’m a sucker for seafood, so that combination gets me very excited.”

The CLS Program is part of a U.S. Department of State effort to expand the number of Americans studying and mastering critical foreign languages. Last year, two VCU students studied Hindi in India and Arabic in Jordan, respectively, through Critical Language Scholarships.